Man on a mission Muqtar Ahmad is training youngsters to preserve Islamic calligraphy in India

To unravel one’s calling in life is the first step towards the making of an evangelist. For Muqtar Ahmad, one of India’s most renowned Arabic calligraphers, that moment of reckoning came at an early age when teachers in his village school at Ranjhol, near Hyderabad, praised him for his beautiful handwriting which looked like calligraphy.

Ahmad’s journey into the world of this intense form of art initially began under the tutelage of Zakir Al Hashmi and Gazi Tahiruddin Qaisar, two prominent calligraphers practising and teaching their art in Hyderabad’s Chatta Bazaar, renowned for printing invitation cards in Urdu calligraphy. After learning his first steps, the young Ahmad left for Bengaluru in the late 1980s and started working for the Urdu newspaper Salar.

“There were no typewriters in Urdu language back then, so Urdu newspapers relied on calligraphers,” Ahmad said.

However, within four years of coming to Bengaluru, young Ahmad was unemployed as India was engulfed by globalisation and computers had become a household utility. “There was no need for handwriting. The calligraphers soon found themselves jobless,” said the 45-year-old, sitting at his Institute of Indo-Islamic Art and Culture in Bengaluru, where he is grooming a new generation of calligraphers.

“I was shocked to see that many of my colleagues did not do anything to preserve this art. Instead, they changed professions or took up odd jobs to make ends meet. I feared that we might lose the art forever in this country,” he said. But the situation only hardened his determination to learn more and master the art which once enjoyed patronage among the Mogul rulers of India.

Initially, Ahmad also took up odd jobs writing plaques and wedding cards. But as the old adage says, luck favours the brave.

Ahmad’s work, a calligraphic plaque inscribed with the Arabic verse Barakallah laka wabarkalika wajama bainakuma fi khair (God blesses you to remain together in peace) for a marriage invitation card, caught the attention of the bridegroom’s father Syed Mohammad Beary, a leading real-estate developer in Bengaluru.

Beary later became a patron of Ahmad’s art and commissioned him to produce exquisite plaques as objects of decor for his home. Fascinated with his skill, Beary’s company further sponsored his visit to Istanbul for a conclave of calligraphers from around the world and later helped him build his own calligraphy institute in 2010.

Ahmad recently became the only Indian to obtain an “Ijazah” (Masters Diploma) from Istanbul-based Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This degree could have fetched him a good job and a much better lifestyle in that part of the world where Islamic art is highly appreciated — “The Arabic calligraphy, with all its delicacy, is at its peak in the Islamic world,” he said. But Ahmad did not earn this degree for his own wellbeing. He is a man on a mission to preserve Islamic calligraphy in India.

Ahmad’s urge to learn was intrinsic — he considers Arabic calligraphy his form of worship.

“Writing Quranic verses and Hadith [sayings of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)] is worship. These works are “sawab-e-jaria” (continuous reward). The aesthetics and refinement are the specialities of the Islamic art. There is no script in the world more beautiful than that of the Quran,” Ahmad said.

He soon found himself learning from Syrian-American master calligrapher and founder of Sakkal Design, Mamoun Sakkal, who is now designing an Arabic typeface, based on Ahmad and Mohammad Zakariya’s styles of work. Zakariya, an American master of Arabic calligraphy, designed the popular Eid in US postage stamp.

“I have known Ustad Muqtar for almost ten years now and have always admired his calligraphy and design skills,” Sakkal told Weekend Review by e-mail. “His is a natural talent that deserved to reach its highest level through training under the best calligraphy masters in the world. I have tried to encourage him to complete his training in Istanbul by commissioning pieces of his calligraphy work. Soon, I will release an Arabic typeface design based on his calligraphy that he has used in several of his graphic designs. It is to be named Sakkal Muqtar. I hope to complete it and publish it in the future.

“We collaborated on producing calligraphic panels to decorate the interior spaces of a private jet in 2004. One panel was for the vestibule and another for the lounge. Both pieces were in Jali Thuluth style of calligraphy and were integrated into the interiors of the jet.”

With a glint in his eyes, Ahmad said, “Meeting them changed my outlook. Master Mohammad Zakariya introduced me to classical international Arabic calligraphy.” What followed was four and a half years of correspondence study with Zakariya, from whom he learnt different styles or calligraphic scripts, including the most visually pleasing Thuluth (pronounced Sulus), also known as the mother of calligraphy.

Ahmad is also an expert in Nastaliq styles of calligraphy. In 2008, he visited Istanbul, where he learnt calligraphy from world-renowned master calligraphers Hassan Çelebi and Dawood Biktash.

Ahmad believes that calligraphy is not only about the dexterousness of your hand but the control of your mind over body.

“This art involves your brain, your eyes and your heart to work in unity. It is an exacting craft, demanding knowledge of history and geometry at the same time. A highly developed aesthetic sense, a dexterous hand, and mental and physical discipline that sometimes defies logic. Only then one can create a verse in a more poignant form,” said Ahmad, who is also now training his children as calligraphers. “At least seven to ten years of consistent, daily practice is required just to perfect one of the classic scripts, an activity that, at its worst, can result in lumbar damage. Traditionally, no one takes money from their students. There is no stipulated time period within which one can learn calligraphy, so how long can I charge anyone? Moreover my own masters and their masters never charged their students. I am just following that tradition of teaching and learning. Not many people can continue to pursue this for long as it demands lot of physical fitness due to the long hours one needs to put in.” This is why, despite legions of hobbyists, there are few full-time professional scribes working in India today.

Ahmad has participated in calligraphy exhibitions and conferences in the UAE (Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi), Saudi Arabia (Madinah), Malaysia and Algeria. During the past two years, he has created 30 masterpieces. The governor of Madinah paid the equivalent of Rs75,000 (Dh4,446) to acquire one of his works for his home. Another work displayed at the Sharjah expo fetched Rs65,000. Orders to produce masterpieces for homes, offices and studios are now pouring in.

But a man on a mission, Ahmad has not let his skills be constrained by the traditional form of expression. He opened himself to the challenge of working on a graphic novel called “Sufi Comics: The Wise Fool of Baghdad”. It is a collection of stories from the life of Bahlool, who lived in eighth-century Baghdad. He was an upright man who used to speak out against the ruling class. To save himself, he pretended to be mad, but in his madness he would teach lessons of wisdom to the people. Ahmad did the Arabic calligraphy of the verses of the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

“I think it is a wonderful way to make Arabic calligraphy popular among the youth of India. There are hardly any calligraphy exhibitions in this country for the youth to get inspired by. We need to reach out to them and there can be no better way than comic books, which entertain as well as educate a child and open up a new world of art for him to explore,” Ahmad said.

“India has a magnificent tradition of calligraphy. But it is on the verge of getting lost as the youth is not being encouraged enough. We need the government and private enterprises to come forward to make calligraphy a profession worth pursuing.”

Archisman Dinda is a journalist based in Kolkata.